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Opie Hendrix & The Texas Tallboys

San Jacinto (Def-Texan Records)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead wrong. There are second acts in American lives. Dubya went from drunk to president. Willie Nelson went from Nashville songwriter to Texas icon. Craig Biggio went from mediocre catcher to outstanding second baseman to an unknown quality in center field.

Ron Howard went from freckle-faced child actor to respected auteur, and his character's namesake is another guy enjoying a nice Act II. A few years ago, Opie Hendrix was just another blues-slinger picking in Houston's dives. Today he's still picking in the beer joints, but now he's almost ready to join America's top-notch y'allternative acts.

Despite the pure-Texas title of this album, it's obvious that Hendrix has spent a bunch of time outside the state in his native rural Indiana. In other words, he's far from a "Texas country" artist, and these days that's almost always a good thing. Save for the title, which Hendrix picked because it sounded like a ZZ Top album, there's nary a Gruene Hall, Guadalupe River or Shiner Bock reference in sight. There's not even a tune about falling apart/partying in Old Mexico while pining for a lost love.

Hendrix is too spacey for all that, too playful, too much his own man, and much more of a ne'er-do-well than the poseurs who fall to pieces on a six-pack of Coors Light.

The bulk of San Jacintois sandwiched between two spot-on vocal impersonations -- it opens with a brief homage to Tom Petty and closes with a hidden full-length tribute to Billy Idol circa 1985.

As for Hendrix's bad behavior, there's a full palette of mischief in every shade. There's raunchy sex on "My Favorite Waitress" ("She's got big boobies / likes dirty movies / she can suck a golf ball through a garden hose / shaves her beaver / I'll never leave her / just get her wasted and it's anything goes.") And as for hard drugs, Hendrix threatens to gobble a handful of Vicodin and "a pile of reds" before complaining that "Someone slipped me cocaine / Must have been in that powder I was sniffin'" on the cowpunker "You Don't Care (Slight Return)."

But such high jinks are de rigueur for a certain type of twangbanger. It takes more than a few lines about la vida loca trailer-park-style to carry off a top-class alt-country record, and here's where Hendrix shines. In addition to being a tasteful guitar player himself, he's put together a crack honky-tonk band, including pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn, fiddler Marty Starns and keyboardist Chaz Nedge. And on the best cuts -- the mountain-style mid-tempo lament "Can't Even Yodel," the Bakersfield shuffle "Little Party" and the jaunty "Golfing and Gravy" -- Hendrix serves up layers of delicious, flaky-biscuit texture. On the dreamy, unsettling "Beautiful and True," there's a little too much texture -- Greg Harbar's accordion gilds the lily a little, or perhaps "frosts the biscuit" is a better term.

Singer David Fahl turns in a superior guest shot on his tune "Shoulda Known Better," a ragged but right sing-along backed by the "Moron Tabernacle Choir" and trumpet accompaniment. Fahl's smoky baritone calls to mind David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings, and this humorous duet with Hendrix wouldn't sound out of place on either of those guys' mid-'70s albums. Or for that matter, one from Steve Earle -- it has a lot in common with his "Regular Guy" off the out-of-print The Hard Way.

Hendrix put this album together with producer/engineer Joe Omelchuck on the cheap. On the real cheap -- Hendrix even had to hold a benefit mid-sessions to pay Omelchuck what was owed for the first half of the record. That the record still turned out this well is a testament to a major talent, one that's just coming into its own right now. Like the fateful battle referred to in the title, this album heralds the arrival of a force that is, if not new, then certainly newly to be reckoned with. With San Jacinto, Hendrix implicitly declares he's just about ready to join Jesse Dayton, John Evans, Greg Wood and Davin James in Houston's hard-twang elite.

 
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